Leadership Matters

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Criticisms of Contemporary Unsustainable  Leadership Models

Contemporary leadership models have come under unrelenting criticism for their role in creating and maintaining organisational leadership that has consistently failed to recognise and acknowledge the core concept that corporations are embedded in and dependent on a sustainable ecological context. Ecologically orientated criticisms of contemporary leadership models particularly focus on “heroic” models which emphasise individual agency and are frequently agnostic about context and purpose (Redekop et al, 2019). This recognition of the culpability of many leadership models in the current climate crisis has lead to a flourishing of theoretical development in the leadership field and the creation of multiple models that seek to incorporate key concepts of sustainability, systemic awareness, prosociality and planetary boundaries within the realm of effective corporate leadership. These leadership models contain within them components that are critically relevant to the development of a comprehensive and sustainable model of climate change leadership.  They include..

Ethical and Responsible Leadership

Ethical Leadership and responsible leadership are broader based conceptual models that cover a greater span both in terms of where leadership is located and how that leadership influences followers in terms of goal attainment. As such they may form the conceptual basis of the transition towards a more sustainable model of climate change leadership. Ethical leadership can provide a number of frameworks including the possibility of universal ethics that place constraints on harmful actions, provide norms for responsible conduct in business and the cultivation of virtues that support the concept of sustainable business, (Raible, 2018). In addition ethical leadership can build on the effective group constructs of Ostrom (2010) by addressing the “free rider” problem through the rejection of shareholder primacy and the advocacy of the triple bottom line, (McManus, 2018). Responsible leadership including Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) leadership has been promoted by the UN Global Compact study that recommended that organisations need to lead with purpose and introduce a culture of responsibility and sustainability. This requires the introduction of science-based targets, within and across sector collaboration and the extension of responsible leadership principles to suppliers and customers.

Environmental and Green Leadership

Environmental and green models of leadership including eco-leadership promote the post-heroic model of leadership by asserting that leadership is distributed amongst the organisation rather than residing in one particular leader. The unique content of eco-leadership is the apparent limitations of the growth model, social inequity, the incompatibility of capitalism and environmental stewardship and globalization. Eco-leadership advocates for new organisational structures that are fit for purpose. The four qualities of eco-leadership have been suggested to be; connectivity and interdependence, systemic ethics, leadership spirit and organisational belonging (Western, 2015). The approach is radical in the sense it promotes a fundamental rethinking of the economic models on which most corporate activities are predicated eg. perpetual growth and the denial of economic “externalities”. Proponents of this approach argue that psychological distance and the dissociation from place allow many corporates to lead in a way that denies responsibility for their distal environmental impact. There are many similarities with green leadership especially in the notion that organisations that practice eco-leadership will enhance employee engagement, adapt more effectively to emerging business opportunities and create social capital through community engagement.

Sustainability Leadership

Sustainable leadership is another broad based conceptual model that covers many of the principles that underpin other neo-ecological models of leadership. There are a number of models of sustainability leadership that emphasise the unsustainabilities of contemporary leadership including the absence of purpose, leader-centric approach, narrow conception of stakeholders and a lack of appreciation of the ecological context, (Bendell et al, 2019). As well as integrating purpose into leadership and weighting that purpose with a moral imperative, sustainability leadership also incorporate the sustainable development goals into the development of sustainable leadership capacity. This ensures that both purpose and goals are contained within an appreciation of ecological limits and planetary boundaries, (Satterwhite, 2019). Furthermore, sustainability leadership challenges the notion of hierchical leadership instead promoting a more distributed model that is episodic and place-based rather than role or trait-like in conceptualisation encouraging a more reflective, relational and systemic model of leadership, (Eweje & Bathurst, 2017).

Shared and Distributed Leadership

Shared Leadership and other team-based approaches have a significant role to play in climate change leadership, (MacKie, 2019). Ostrom (2010) has outlined the eight core design principles necessary for groups to effective manage common pool resources. These include a shared identity and purpose that creates greater discretionary effort than extrinsic motivators, (Atkins et al, 2019). This focus on why as a unifying principle is well aligned with other significant thinkers in the aligned field of team coaching, (Hawkins, 2017). Distributed models are inherently more democratic and inclusive in that their underlying assumptions propose that leadership talent is diffuse, abundant and developable rather than the preserve of an elite few. Adaptive leadership (Heifetz et al, 2009) is a recent example of a distributed leadership model that focuses on leadership as a practice to be applied where the solutions are unknown or ambiguous.

Natural Models of Leadership

Natural or evolutionary models of leadership emphasise both the continuity with our common ancestors and the adaptive nature of leadership in response to changing environmental contingencies. McManus (2018) proposes a 5 component leadership model that includes leader and follower interacting to produce a goal within a context and culture with specific values and norms.  He then proposes a sixth condition, that of the natural world, that provides a boundary condition for the safe operating limits of the five components. Elsewhere Li et al (2018) has presented persuasive evidence why Neolithic minds adapted to a vastly different evolutionary environment are mismatched when faced with the complex and intangible future orientated problems that are inherent in climate change leadership. He asserts that there are core distinctions between dominance and prestige-based models of leadership that explain fundamental differences in decision-making and mechanisms of influence, (Van Vugt & Smith, 2019).  Furthermore Von Reuden & Van Vugt (2015) suggest that many contemporary models of leadership including transformational leadership, are limited and partial as they are derived from observations in recent large scale contemporary environments where for 95% of human history, the environment of evolutionary adaptation was small scale hunter-gather groups.

Ecological & Restorative Leadership

Ecological models of leadership assert that traditional models of leadership are manifestly inadequate for dealing with contemporary adaptive challenges, (Allen et al, 1999). These challenges include living within environmental limits, managing consumption, managing information overload and promoting ethical development. The embedded purpose of ecological models of leadership shifts from shareholder profit to human flourishing within a sustainable natural environment.  Restorative leadership is a model of ecological leadership that has been developed in the context of significant changes in the organisational approach to sustainability, (Steffan, 2019). Restorative approaches emphasise the high degree of interdependence of living systems and align with positive psychology approaches in asserting the abundance of creativity and human potential. As an aspirational ideology this approach has its attractions and the focus on cooperation and ancient wisdom aligns well with other naturalistic approaches to leadership. However the model tends to promote aspiration and purpose without necessarily articulating the necessary steps leaders and leadership need to take to attain these results. Like sustainable leadership, restorative models emphasise the criticality of systemic ecological world views that emphasise the intrinsic value of nature and the fragility of the ecological environment in which corporations are embedded, (Schein, 2017).

Emerging Consensus and Common Themes in CCL

Emerging models of sustainable leadership including green leadership, restorative leadership and regenerative leadership share some common features that need to be incorporated into an effective model of climate change leadership (CCL). All of these models emphasise the key challenges of successful climate change leadership including a global perspective and the recognition of the finite limitations of the natural environment in which all corporations and businesses operate, (Weilkiewicz et al 2010). CCL also incorporates the concept of maturity and vertical development. Vertical development has been suggested to function as a stage model with each stage incorporating and expanding on the perspective and worldview of the previous level, (Kegan & Lahey, 2010).

Developing a Framework for Climate Change Leadership

The Characteristics of Effective Climate Change Leadership include;

  • Sustainable leadership that acknowledges boundaries and limits
  • It focuses on leadership acts not leaders
  • It places ethical purpose at the center of leadership
  • It models shared and distributed not hierarchical approaches
  • It’s inclusive and considered in terms of social and environmental impact
  • It teaches inter-dependency, radical cooperation and humility
  • It localises leadership within natural constraints and shared structures


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